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Leclerc in championship mode in Melbourne

Leclerc in championship mode in Melbourne

FORMULA ONE: Charles Leclerc set Melbourne alight with an unbeatable performance in Albert Park last Sunday (Apr 10) to put the 2022 championship into an early Ferrari stranglehold.

By Michael Lamonato

Wednesday 13 April 2022, 11:21AM

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. Photo: AFP

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. Photo: AFP

Most drivers never get a chance to dominate in the way Leclerc did on Sunday afternoon in Melbourne.

Before a sun-drenched packed house at Albert Park, Ferrari man Leclerc turned the Australian Grand Prix into a demonstration run. Having dominated romped to pole position, he aced his getaway, led every lap of the race and took the chequered flag with more than 20 seconds in hand over the competition.

To underline the most comprehensive weekend of his Formula 1 career, he set the fastest lap on the final tour, making himself just the 15th driver in the sport’s history to achieve a ‘grand slam’.

Speaking after the race, the 24-year-old was clearly still processing the scale of his domination of the third round of the season.

“In Formula 1 it’s the first [race] where we could control a little bit the gap,” he said.

“I’ve been in this situation in the junior categories, but then to be in this situation in Formula 1 means a lot, and especially after the last few years and especially with a team like Ferrari.

“It feels incredible.”

Some will point to Max Verstappen’s retirement from the race with yet another power unit problem as reason for Leclerc’s supremacy, but Verstappen had been beaten long before his car ground to a halt and set itself on fire, having been gapped in the first stint, bested at the pit stops and held at bay at two safety car restarts. There was simply no comparison to be made.

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“Today was in general just a bad day again,” he told Sky Sports in the UK. “Not really having the pace… I knew I could not fight Charles, so there was no point to try and put pressure on him.

“But we didn’t even finish the race - it’s pretty frustrating and unacceptable.”

More concerning is that Verstappen’s engine failure is just the latest in a long and concerning line of unrelated but often terminal problems afflicting the Red Bull-badged powertrains. His likely fuel line breakage made him the first among them to be retired by a problem twice.

“These kinds of things, if you want to fight for the title, cannot happen,” he said, and after the race he added concerningly that, “It doesn’t look like there’s a clear fix, so we need to work hard to try and improve our reliability.”

It’s never wise to look at the championship equation with 20 rounds still to go, but the points table is dire. Verstappen has slipped to sixth in the standings in his title-defending year and 46 points behind Leclerc - almost two clear race wins. If Leclerc were to finish second to Verstappen at the next tranche of races, it would still take until July for the Dutchman to get back on equal terms.

But there’s little prospect of Leclerc being so comprehensively beaten. In raw performance the Ferrari and Red Bull Racing machines might eb closely matched, but the SF-75 is responsive, pliable and seemingly circuit agnostic. The RB18 is picky about set-up and liable to falling out of its operating window, as it did in Melbourne. And with engineers focusing their energies on the reliability problem rather than simply on performance, Ferrari has a chance to eke open that advantage.

This isn’t over by any stretch, but another failure to finish would be an extremely heavy blow to Verstappen’s title defence.

Not that Leclerc was thinking about the title. On his perfect Albert Park afternoon he only had to practice his podium rendition of the Italian national anthem. He’ll be singing it a lot this season.

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